Jan 222017

Because we share similar passions, I read with fascination this past week an interview with President Barack Obama about how his love of reading is closely tied to his love of writing. “Me, too!” I thought as I learned that our 44th President wrote short stories about older people during early adulthood. Our 39th President, Jimmy Carter, is the first President to publish a fiction novel, The Hornet’s Nest, in addition to a collection of poems, Always a Reckoning, and a children’s story, The Little Baby Snoogle-fleejer.

Both writing and reading help people to understand the strongest emotions, and to develop empathy for others whose histories and life experiences are completely different from their own. According to Julianne Chiaet in Novel Finding: Reading Literary Fiction Improves Empathy, researchers at The New School in New York City discovered that reading literary fiction increases the reader’s capacity for empathy, while the reading of popular fiction and nonfiction, or reading nothing at all, does not appear to do anything for a person’s capacity to understand others.

As our 45th President was inaugurated on Friday, this research made me wonder what fiction stories are on our most recent Presidents’ reading lists. We all know, of course, how isolating the White House experience can be. This creates a necessity for the current Dweller-in-Chief to escape from the proverbial bubble to connect with the people who are being served.

Here are some of the books that I discovered the past dozen Presidents have added to their reading lists. Several Presidents—Jimmy Carter, George H. W. Bush, and Richard Nixon—are fans of Leo Tolstoy. One President, Lyndon B. Johnson, was labeled a non-reader by one writer, and so far, I have not been able to learn anything about his reading tastes, fiction or otherwise. Our new President, Donald Trump, says in this Washington Post article that he has no time to read, but despite this statement I discovered a post from U.S. News & World Report that cites a book from 1929 as his favorite fiction book, which I have named below.

Presidential Fiction Reading Countdown

45th President. All Quiet on the Western Front, by Erich Maria Remarque—recommended by Donald Trump, 2017-

44th President. Song of Solomon, by Toni Morrison–recommended by Barack Obama, 2009-2017

43rd President. Next, by Michael Crichton–recommended by George W. Bush, 2001-2009

42nd President. You Can’t Go Home Again, by Thomas Wolfe—recommended by Bill Clinton, 1993-2001

41nd President. War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy—recommended by George H. W. Bush, 1989-1993

40th President. The Hunt for Red October, by Tom Clancy—recommended by Ronald Reagan

39th President. War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy—recommended by Jimmy Carter, 1977-1981

38th President. Novels by Horatio Alger—recommended by Gerald Ford, 1974-1977

37th President. “Anything by Leo Tolstoy”—recommended by Richard Nixon, 1969-1974

36th President. Referred to as a “non-reader” by Harold Evans in White House Book Club—Lyndon B. Johnson, 1963-1969

35th President. From Russia with Love, by Ian Fleming—recommended by John F. Kennedy, 1961-1963

34th President. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, by Mark Twain—recommended by Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1953-1961

For more information about Presidential reading lists, you may wish to refer to these resources:

© 2017 Judy Nolan. All rights reserved.

Jan 152017

I read a post recently by Sarah Selecky of Story is a State of Mind in which she makes a case for writing by hand instead of using a keyboard. Selecky does not propose, of course, that you complete all of your creative writing this way, but instead your daily practice writing. She invites you to join her Daily Prompts group in Why should I write by hand?, spending 10 minutes each day with ordinary pen and paper. She acknowledges that you probably write faster by typing, but says this is not the point, that instead the purpose of writing by hand is to deliberately slow things down, to become receptive to details, to notice what’s going on around you, and to become the details. Interesting thought, isn’t it?

Photo by Erin Kohlenberg: (https://www.flickr.com/photos/erinkohlenbergphoto/5406459295) via: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

Ours is a world in which people race to write the first draft of a novel in 30 days by participating in National Novel Writing Month, also known as NaNoWriMo, who feel pressured to plan the next book in a series before the first one is even finished, to respond to trends and fads and events that are happening now before they disappear and are replaced by the next Big Thing. Some folks feel compelled to enroll in an MFA writing program, hoping it will give them time to focus on writing above all else, only to discover they feel rushed because that’s not all such an MFA program is about. I suspect the pressure to write a lot quickly is immense in such situations and that there is great potential for writing to become quite a chore.

Photo by mpclemens: (https://www.flickr.com/photos/mpclemens/15343533039) via: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

I’m not a fast writer, in case you haven’t guessed this already. My process involves dreaming, reading, researching, mind mapping, list making and reflecting before ideas begin to take shape and finally emerge on paper. I enjoy every step of the journey. Writing is not a burden for me; I don’t fit at all the stereotype of the angst-driven writer who feels she has to write but hates every minute of it. Life is too short to do something you don’t enjoy.

The idea of writing slowly, whether by hand or with a keyboard, until your story takes shape—however you define “story,” and I am defining it loosely—is shared by Patty Dann, author of The Butterfly Hours: Transforming Memories into Memoir. I love this book, which strings together the memories not only of Dann’s life but also those of her students who write their stories 10 minutes at a time until a truth is told that helps them make sense of their lives. For more than 25 years, Patty Dann has taught a workshop at the West Side YMCA in New York City in which she assigns concrete one-word prompts that are intended to evoke memories. These words are as simple as dining room table, apron, stairs, nightgown and snow. Some of her students have taken her workshop more than once, and when they do, they never tell the same story twice. This is slow writing, thoughtful writing, writing that—as Sarah Selecky would say—makes you sit up and take notice of the details.

Photo by Thomas8047: (https://www.flickr.com/photos/93482748@N02/10745434953) via: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

In The Art of Slow Writing: Reflections on Time, Craft, and Creativity, Louise DeSalvo says that “the best writing grows by accretion, over time.” She shares slow writing anecdotes not only from classic writers such as Henry Miller and John Steinbeck, but also modern ones such as Margaret Atwood, Junot Díaz and Salmon Rushdie. DeSalvo points out that to know where you’re going with your writing, you should understand your own rhythm and how you work best. You must give yourself permission to write not just one draft, but many drafts, some of them poorly. And before your finest writing work emerges, DeSalvo suggests you will have taken more time than you ever imagined to complete these stages:

  • Imagine it. Think about your topic and take notes about it long before you begin to write your story.
  • Draft it. Recognize that you don’t have just one opportunity to get your story right; you have as many chances as you need.
  • Stage it. Break your work down into chunks you can handle: writing, revising, learning.
  • Manipulate it. Figure out the order of your story, its structure, and its image patterns after you have something to manipulate. Later is better.
  • Fine-tune it. Tighten your work where it meanders, expand it where it’s thin, and work through the details of using the appropriate words, sentences, and paragraphs.

One of the responsibilities a writer owes her readers is to make them feel. Writing that shows more than it tells, or that tells more than it shows, is out of balance. It takes time to find that balance. In The Emotional Craft of Fiction, Donald Maass explains the challenge clearly through an exercise in which you’re asked to complete a questionnaire with the following information about yourself:

  • Date of birth
  • Hometown
  • Elementary school
  • High school
  • College/major
  • Occupation
  • Date of marriage
  • Other marriages
  • Current residence
  • Religious affiliation, if applicable
  • Awards/honors
  • Hobbies/interests

Then Maass asks if you and he are now best friends. Of course, the answer is no. To understand you, someone would have to ask you how you felt when you lost your grandfather, what disgusts you, what resonates with you, what frightens you, what makes you feel proud, and much more. Writing a story before you take the time to understand the inner workings of your characters is shadow writing; you must take time to acquaint yourself with your characters’ experiences and how these happenings made them feel. This is all about noticing the details, and giving your story deeper meaning. “What shapes us and gives our lives meaning are not the things that happen to us,” says Maass, “but their significance. Life lessons, revelations, changes, and growing convictions are what we think of when we ponder who we are.”

Good writing is always the result of consistent practice over time, reflection, planning, learning, and revising. In the end, it doesn’t matter whether you write by hand or use a keyboard, if you pay attention to the details and don’t rush to the end. And when you stroll through your writing garden, instead of speed walking past it, take time to gaze at the butterfly floating above the day lily, to feel the sharp sting of freezing droplets on your skin, and to inhale the earthy aroma of wood smoke drifting from your neighbor’s chimney. Breathe slowly until you’ve internalized the details, become the details, and tell a story about them.

Photo by Ed Yourdon: (https://www.flickr.com/photos/yourdon/7168737549) via: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

© 2017 Judy Nolan. All rights reserved.

Jan 082017

We visited my mother-in-law over New Year’s weekend in Rib Mountain, Wisconsin, where we celebrated her 84th birthday. If you’re unfamiliar with Rib Mountain, it is known for its ski slopes on Granite Peak (originally called Rib Mountain) and its ice fishing on Lake Wausau. We knew we had arrived in northern Wisconsin when we stopped for gas in Cadott, halfway between Rib Mountain and the Minnesota-Wisconsin border. Hanging from pegboards in the shop aisles were retractable ice picks for pulling yourself out of holes in the ice (should you fall in), as well as ice tip-ups (flags) that pop up to tell you when you’ve hooked a fish.

Located near Wausau about an hour away from the home of the Green Bay Packers in north central Wisconsin, Rib Mountain is a beautiful area studded with forests and lakes, hiking paths, and snowmobile trails. Winters are long and cold, so you learn to dress for the weather. When we arrived at John’s mother’s house, the wind chill factor was -17 degrees. Needless to say, the weather is always a topic of conversation in northern Wisconsin. Before we returned to Iowa, we pulled out our iPhones to check the weather app. Roads close during blizzards when there are whiteout conditions, or when the roads are completely ice-covered. Checking the forecast won’t change the weather, but it prevents you from getting stuck.

This photo of my mother-in-law and me was shot half a dozen years ago in December, up on Granite Peak in the town of Rib Mountain, Wisconsin.

Snow showers were forecast in the vicinity of Minneapolis, the edges of which we normally cross on our way home. To avoid the prospect of icy roads, we headed straight south on Interstate 39 from north central Wisconsin. This added about an hour to our usual seven-hour drive home, but we consoled ourselves with the thought that the road less traveled often yields unexpected surprises. That’s when we saw it—the unexpected, that is—in Windsor, Wisconsin as we stopped for gas. Across the street was a tiny building topped by a jaunty mouse.

That washed-out sky told us that either rain or show showers were behind us, further north.

Who could resist The Mousehouse Cheesehaus, especially in Wisconsin, the Land of Cheese, where Green Bay Packer fans are fondly referred to as Cheeseheads? Besides, it was dinnertime and we knew we’d find something tasty inside. While our orders for ham and chicken salad sandwiches were being filled, John and I browsed the aisles. In the cold case we discovered a Swiss & Almond Cheddar Cheese Spread. A second stop at the sausage tasting counter netted us a 1-1/2 pound log of Old Wisconsin Beef Summer Sausage. As we rounded the corner, a glass case with 23 different homemade fudges caught our eye. Buying four squares of fudge and getting two free ones was a no-brainer. It was tough to narrow down our choices to Chocolate Walnut, Rocky Road and Dark Chocolate Caramel Toffee, but we got the job done. If you’re diabetic, they even offer two types of fudge made with sucrose-free chocolate.

After we returned home, we visited the Web site for The Mousehouse, and discovered that it has garnered various awards. The Swiss & Almond Cheddar Cheese spread, for example, which uses a white cheddar base, earned 1st place in the 2011 U.S. Cheese Championship. The summer sausage logs are hand-tied and made in what is called the “old style Wisconsin tradition.” I’m not sure what that means, but I can tell you it tastes much better than my grocery store’s summer sausage!

The cheeses that you buy at The Mousehouse are purchased from 19 different cheese-making factories in Wisconsin, each with its own specialty. What makes these cheeses so special is that many of them are crafted by Wisconsin Master Cheesemakers, a distinction earned by only 51 cheesemaker artisans in the state. The title is earned by graduating from a three-year apprenticeship program administered by the University of Wisconsin-Madison by the Center for Dairy Research, whose standards are more rigorous than any other cheesemaker certification program in the nation. Veteran cheesemakers can enter the program only if they have a minimum of 10 years of cheese-making experience. Five of those years must be in the specialization of up to two different cheeses, which is the maximum number of cheeses in which an artisan can be certified each time he or she enters the three-year program. During that time, candidates take required courses in cheese technology, artisanship, grading and quality assurance. They select from a set of elective courses that include applied dairy chemistry, water and waste management, and whey and whey utilization. Finally, apprentice cheesemaker artisans submit samples of cheese for taste and consistency evaluations, and pass a final written exam.

The tradition of cheese-making in Wisconsin goes back more than 160 years, when Europeans first arrived in America and sought the best environmental conditions for crafting cheese. They found it in Wisconsin’s pastures and limestone-filtered waters, perfect for the cows whose milk begins the process of cheese-making. You can learn about The Art of Cheesemaking in the fascinating 12-minute-or-so video shown below, produced by the University of Wisconsin Extension Office.

Making unplanned stops when you travel definitely produces surprising discoveries. You can bet we’ll visit The Mousehouse in the future, either in person or online.

© 2017 Judy Nolan. All rights reserved.